Paolo’s Prayer – Part I

In 1023, Carasco was a modest village.  It rested quietly next to the Mediterrean sea on the Eastern coast of Italy.  Despite all that had crumbled in the world around it, it remained relatively untouched.  Very little changed here from season to season, year to year, decade to decade.  Men and women married, some raised crops and livestock, they built homes and filled them with children.  Most of the men were fisherman here, a tradition passed down from one generation to the next, the salt air and hissing sea were as much a part of each villager as their flesh and bones.  Each day the sea would bring life to them, and each night they would give thanks for what was given.  They led simple lives – none of them seemed to yearn for much more — many never dared to dream of anything else.


Paolo did.  When he was a child, he’d sit up in the rocks by the sea at night and stare up into the sky.  He’d stare at the stars and wonder who and what was out there – maybe staring back at him.  He knew there were other places that looked very different from his home – he would often hide himself in corners and behind walls and listen to the stories of the men that came to his village on boats from other places that no one in his village would ever see.  These men talked of places that looked like seas of sand, lands overgrown with thick trees and vines, and mountaintops covered with bitter cold snow.   He would think about all of these places when he would stare at the stars and he would imagine what it would be like to go to them someday.


But Paolo’s father had other plans.  He was strict and cold, he said little and he valued nothing above hard work.  He was a fisherman, as was his father before him, and his father before that.  Paolo was the middle child of eight, and four of them were brothers.  Paolo’s mother had died during the birth of their youngest child, his little sister.  He had not gotten the chance to say goodbye to her, but after she had died he clearly remembers feeling a deep fear.  He focused on what would happen after this life ended.  In his mother’s absence, Paolo’s father worked the boys hard., and forced them to pray harder.  But Paolo did not pray for the forgiveness of his sins, or the blessing of a good fishing season as he was instructed.  His prayers belonged only to him.  He prayed to see these other lands he’d heard about, he prayed for something or someone to take him away from the only home he’d ever known.  He asked God for the chance to be here long enough to live the life he imagined.


The beginning of the end began like any other day that summer.  It was hot, the sun beating down on everything, making the rocks, sand and sea glisten and the air shimmer and boil.  Their ship was from the East, and even as it rocked and tumbled towards the dock it looked just like any other.  But the men on board were anxious and rattled.  They were pale, frail and some burst out with violent hacking coughs as they walked.  They explained to one of the villagers that they needed time to rest and dock, that they had spices to trade in exchange for time.


It was only later that the villagers learned that they also needed a place to bury their dead.


Three of the men on board that ship had died at sea.  One of them became sick very suddenly, then the second, and then the last.  No one knew how it had exactly started, but by the time they did notice, the men’s skin became hot like fire, and spotted with ugly dark red.  Their necks swelled and bulged and their jaws tightened until they could no longer speak, and not much more time passed until they could no longer breathe.


Over the years, the people of Carasco had invited many travellers from the sea to stay in their village.  They had given them shelter, food, and fresh water from their very own homes.  They had been good and in return hoped for God’s grace and mercy.  They did nothing different for these men, and accepted some of the spices and exotic silks and skins from their ship as payment for their hospitality.  This wealth was distributed amongst the villagers, these gifts brought deep into their homes and shared with their families.


After a few days, most of the fisherman from that boat were dead, and many of the villagers were now struggling with the same deep sickness.


Paolo would watch as his family would become stricken – one by one.  Their bodies become wretched, bruised and soiled until each and every one of them succumbed.  It wasn’t just his family, so many of the villagers around them, all the people Paolo had known his whole life were falling one by one to this invisible wrath.


Not only grief, but fear engulfed Paolo.  Had his prayers been so selfish that they created a curse upon his village?  Had he asked God to send this plague and take everyone he had ever known?  The torment seemed inescapable, and the fright of falling like everyone else controlled his mind.  He was afraid of meeting the same awful fate as his family.  He now begged to God, over and over again…


“I don’t want to die.  Dear God, don’t let me die.”


He decided one night to correct the curse, to take fate back into his own hands.  He started a fire, one that would spread swiftly and meanly.  And then he fled as fast as his feet would take him.  There were no more horses to ride, no more sheep to steal — all the animals were dying too.  He sprinted away from his village and into the countryside, away from the sea that had brought life and eventually death to his village.  He dragged his body to higher ground – safe from the plague he believed.  Finally feeling safe enough – he decided to stop.  The reality suddenly set down upon him, the weight of it felt as though it was crushing him.


Paolo set fire to the only home he had ever known; and now from a safe distance he stood and watched it burn, taken into the heavens by black smoke and hot ash.  He was all alone now – but he did have what he had prayed for — he was alive.  He let his knees fall to the Earth and his large dark eyes settled on the burning village below.  He closed them, shutting out the distant sounds of crackling fire and popping wood.   The wind ceased and the air became silent.  He now prayed to God for something new…


“Dear God, please don’t let me die all alone.”


He would fall asleep here that night, exhausted and hungry.  In the morning he would awaken from this very spot, the deepest sleep he’d had in weeks.  He would slowly rise back up onto his knees and would set his eyes back upon his village hoping it all had been just some nightmare. But when he looked upon his village, he would find nothing but rubble and smoke.


He thought about all of the men that had come before him, those that had decided to settle beside the sea – to commit to the land, to build houses, boats, and raise crops.  He thought about the hundreds of families that had lived in this place many years before he walked upon the Earth.  The wind kicked up, into his face and he swore for a moment he could feel them all.  In that moment he realized something…


… it takes many men to build a village, but only one to burn it down.


It was now time for him to turn his back on this place – for him to leave, and this time he would not ever look back.


~ by Dan Fabrizio on April 25, 2012.

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